By Caitlin Shuda
WISCONSIN RAPIDS – Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a bill Thursday that would have awarded up to $65 million in federal loans to prospective buyers of paper mills in Wisconsin Rapids and Park Falls.
Lawmakers approved the bill in the Assembly and Senate over the last few weeks. The bill directed the loan to come from funds available to the state through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to “address an economic harm resulting from or exacerbated by the public health emergency.” While Verso pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason it shuttered its Wisconsin Rapids mill, it has been unclear whether the loan would apply to a third party purchasing the paper mill.
Democrats and Evers unsuccessfully pushed an amendment to the bill to open up other sources of funding in the event that the federal government decided that use of the money was not acceptable. Republican lawmakers rejected the amendment.
State Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point said in a release Thursday evening accused Evers of turning his back on thousands of families and jobs in central and northern Wisconsin.
“But he still has the opportunity to do the right thing,” Testin said. “He has the authority to allocate these ARPA funds to help the mill.”
In a memo to Assembly members Thursday, Evers said he vetoed the bill because he objects to using ARPA funding "when the state has sufficient GPR (general purpose revenue) funding to support the project and ARPA is not a reliable funding source to provide the long-term assistance needed to revive these mills and provide stable jobs to their workers."
He also stated that since many paper companies were experiencing financial difficulties before the pandemic, the federal government might decide the mill closures are not sufficiently tied to the impacts of the pandemic. The funds are also only available to use through the end of 2024, which would not give potential purchasers flexibility to repay the loans, he wrote.
"I support efforts to provide reliable, long-term relief to Wisconsin's vital paper industry and the workers at the Wisconsin Rapids and Park Falls mills," Evers said. "My administration has and will continue to work with local stakeholders to support these efforts."
Evers also said he has proposed a bipartisan approach for alternative funding that he called a realistic path forward. He did not provide details about that proposal.
"Following my action on the state budget, there is ample state funding available for this and other priorities of the state," he said.
At the Assembly floor session in June, Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said the governor and a group of Democrats had put together amendments to the bill in an attempt to strengthen it amid the uncertainty about whether the cooperatives aiming to purchase and operate the mills would qualify for the loans. The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau suggested amending the bill since the rules were unclear if the project would qualify.
Republican Rep. Scott Krug of Nekoosa, an author of the bill, previously said he was not worried about the project’s eligibility.
"Governor Evers continues to play politics with people’s lives and livelihoods,” Krug said Thursday in a press release. “He says that he supports the mill – in theory. There’s nothing theoretical to the harm that he’s doing to the mill workers, loggers, and their families.”
Shankland, in a statement issued Friday afternoon, said that she voted for the bill, but had been in favor of including the amendments, ensuring “we had the legal certainty necessary for the bill to become law.”
Shankland said there’s no reason both parties can’t work together on a new bill.
“I know that if we put our heads together and negotiate in good faith, we can build something stronger that we can actually get across the finish line to provide the certainty and security needed to help our communities,” she said.